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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Wintering Monarchs

A Monarch Butterfly feeding on Swamp Milkweed.

A Monarch Butterfly feeding on Swamp Milkweed. 

You can save the world for monarch butterflies in your yard. Monarch numbers are down.

Follow through on a New Year’s Resolution to save the world for Monarchs. Make sure milkweeds grow in your garden or on disturbed ground. Saving the world is within our grasp if we are responsible Earth stewards. Actions in our yards can make a difference for good. Grow milkweeds for the love of wildlife and beauty in your yard, as a religious mandate for creation stewardship, or to protect your own survival by keeping fellow inhabitants of Earth present that provide essential contributions to nature niches.

The following information is based on a New York Times article passed along by colleagues Barb Bloetscher and further massaged by Dave Horn.

Numbers of over wintering monarch butterflies are at record low numbers this year in Mexico. Last year’s estimate of 60 million was already a record low, and fewer than three million have appeared so far this fall (20 times fewer). Some fear that the spectacular monarch migration might be a thing of the past.

The decline is real, although the cause or causes are not obvious. Recently, scientists have focused on loss of native vegetation, especially in and around agricultural fields in mid America. As the price of corn has soared recently, farmers have expanded fields by plowing every available piece of land that can grow corn. Millions of acres once in conservation reserve are now plowed, and more and more herbicide is used in crop production. That has led to loss of many nectar sources plus uncounted acres of milkweed, the food for monarch caterpillars. It is estimated that Iowa has lost 60 to 90 percent of its milkweed. Roads, malls and sterile lawns have also contributed to the loss of food for monarch larvae and adults, along with those of other butterflies.

So what to do? Anyone with a yard or garden can increase biological diversity with a variety of wild and cultivated plants including milkweed. For additional ideas, log onto the Monarch Watch website: http://www.monarchwatch.org/

An additional note that I mentioned in a previous Nature Niche article is that genetically modified corn and soybeans have made crops resistant to herbicides. Plants necessary for wildlife cannot survive the increased herbicide use. Monarchs have lost most food sources between Mexico and Michigan. Our yards are essential habitat and each of us is essential in the effort to maintain healthy biodiversity. Our cities and our rural yards are the new Ark for Monarchs, Earth, and us.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

 

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Silhouettes of Life

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A cottontail rabbit was in the backyard under the apple tree eating something in the deep snow. When I first noticed, it was sitting tall with front legs high above the ground. I first thought it was a plant silhouette that looked like a rabbit until it dropped to all fours and resumed eating. The yard was snow covered with no vegetation apparent above the snow. I wondered what it was eating. Later I discovered it was eating fallen apples.

Young trees will be killed during winter when rabbits girdle them for the tasty and nutritious bark. The yard took on a new beauty with twelve inches of snow. A wonderful cold spell remained in the low 20’s or colder keeping snow light and fluffy. Snow glazed tree branches but was thickest on larger branches. A cherry that would stand about 18 feet tall was arched with ice and snow highlighting its bent silhouette. I had not noticed the tree was bent until the snow outline drew my eye. It was not bent from snow or ice weight. This tree has been bent for a long time and I wondered how it became bent.

It crossed my mind that I should cut it to make room for it to sprout new straight growth or remove it so surrounding plants could grow without interference. Immediately I realized how much influence I could exert on the community at Ody Brook. It is not just my meddling but that of other creatures that shape the biotic landscape of silhouettes. Rabbits annually kill many young woody stems but roots strive to survive and produce new clusters of shoots in spring. There was a bird nest in the sugar maple in front of the house. I wondered if the bird was successful in rearing young. It seems that one of the many squirrels living here might have found the nest and eaten the eggs. During winter many nest silhouettes become apparent on naked exposed branches that were well camouflaged during the growing season.

Large trees stand tall protecting the open yard and house from winter’s heat stealing winds. They shelter birds, mammals, insects and us from the wind chilling bitter cold. Branch silhouettes provide a variety of views during long winter months. One night at dusk a few clouds mottled the sky behind living tree skeletons. Only a faint hint of orange penetrated between the branches making the view subtly beautiful as night took hold. Dimness slowly blurred and erased the separation of light and dark between trees and sky. Soon all was a dark canopy waiting for the next day’s new stories to be written in sky, on snow, and among the tree branches. Life activities continue during the depths of night and are revealed by telltale signs left for the sun to illuminate, when an interested explorer seeks nature niche mysteries.

As the year wound down to the solstice, my thoughts anticipated what might happen as daylight lengthened in the coming six months. Many best friends share Ody Brook Sanctuary and surroundings. Many will not survive the winter. Some friends are plants and are some animals. I even wondered if I would witness another year’s cycle of life and death as my body attacks itself with its own cells out of control with cancer. Cancer reminds me of my own mortality and heightens awareness and joy for everyday wonders.

I work diligently to enhance conditions that support healthy habitats for wild creatures, other people, and my family that call West Michigan home. Without hundreds of species at Ody Brook Sanctuary making life sustainable, rich, and meaningful for family and friends, there would be little purpose to wake. Without wild creatures there would be no breathable air, soil would be sterile, and plants could not grow food to nourish animals or us. Not only would there be no reason to wake but we could not wake without the contributions of nature that sustain life. We like to think we can survive and even thrive without wild creatures but we cannot. Happy New Year to all creatures bringing life and health to a new year.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

 

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Restoring life in your yard

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

The joy of this past year with friends and family provides satisfaction and contentment. Immediately we anticipate what the coming year holds. We determined much of the future by our activities. Grandiose plans are forming. Some are just a start towards healthier days for our family, community, nation, and the world in fragile finite environments that support us.

Everything begins close at hand here at home. Look around and notice not much human activity takes place in yards. Most of us hide away in the warmth and comfort of our shelter with tasty food tucked away. We are like the Eastern Chipmunk that makes fewer ventures outside during late fall and we might also stay hidden inside during the coldest snowy days of winter.

The chipmunk stored food for the short days and long cold nights and is now curled in a snug ball in its underground fortress. It will remain active, eat and wait for a spring emergence. She will not hibernate but will sleep with little else to do. It has aided root health by tunneling and aerating the soil.

We do not need to sleep away the beauty and marvel of winter. We can venture to hidden corners of our yard enjoying evidence of abundant life. Tracks on snow, tunnels under it, sightings of squirrels in trees keep us entertained and aware that we do not live alone in the world.

The more native plants you allow to survive in the yard allow for an abundance of animal life. There is beauty in a manicured grass lawn and feeling of space that gives comfort to us even when it is under inches of snow. A lawn, however, is an almost sterile world that is crowding life off the planet.

Lawns often have little human activity except on workdays when we mow them with power mowers that expel carbon greenhouse gas into the air. Tom Small describes US lawns collectively as 45 million acres of “No man’s land.” It might be better to identify them as sterile land lacking suitable nature niches for sustaining biodiversity to support us and fellow inhabitants of Earth.

Small states that lawns are a vast, sterile, industrialized monoculture that robs soil of nutrients, robs streams of water, robs the region’s creatures of habitat, and robs the neighborhood of community.

It impressed me when I took a group of middle school students, including two from Cedar Springs, on an educational trip to the rain forest and rural communities in Belize. In a poor rural community, we observed women with children gathered in a yard with flower hedges along the property boundary. Neighbor’s yards were without flowers and shrubs and were devoid of people. People usually do not gather on empty lawns to visit and pass time even here in the US. We like to be among life and beauty.

During the New Year, plan to restore the yard with an abundance of life that preceded settlement of our town and rural surroundings. Most yards now use natural resources without giving back or paying it forward for the health of coming generations. We often give gifts and community support for those in need. Consider giving vital inheritance for coming generations. Squandering the soil, nutrients, air, and water quality steals economic and physical health from unborn generations. Unfortunately, beautiful lawns reduce life on Earth. Let nature into your yard this coming year and restore life. It starts at home.

The creatures that fill nature niches replenish nutrient cycles, brighten our days, and maintain clean air and water. Fellow inhabitants of Earth are money in the bank for a sustainable future. They are the savings account of our kids. This new year, plan to replace sections of the lawn with native plants to restore health in the yard. You will enjoy birds and the air will fill with the songs of nature during day and night.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

 

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Bird Opportunity

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Join others for a last bird watching opportunity in 2013. Experienced birders will help you identify about 60 species on December 28, during the Christmas Bird Count sponsored by National Audubon, Michigan Audubon, and Grand Rapids Audubon Club.

This is my 27th year coordinating the Kent County event. It’s a time people enjoy seeing birds in their winter nature niches and celebrate the diversity of life that abounds around us. About 60 people gather and divide into small groups that venture to various areas within the count circle. Birds are counted in an area with a 7.5-mile radius surrounding the Honey Creek and Two Mile Roads intersection.

Some are surprised we annually find American Robins and Eastern Bluebirds. They are birds that stay provided berries are found in wetlands. More exciting are winter bird visitors that consider this area a southern wintering ground. Included are the Snowy Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Snow Bunting, Purple Finch, and Common Redpoll. Other remaining here in winter that most of us do not notice are Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, and Song Sparrow. I saw a kingfisher here at Ody Brook along Little Cedar Creek last week.

Some winter migrants from the north have arrived indicating count day should be great. A Rough-legged Hawk flew over Ody Brook and I observed a Snow Owl west of here. Two Snow Bunting flocks made an appearance in farm fields.

The local Audubon Club hopes you join the free family activity for part or all day. Previous bird knowledge or experience is not necessary. Join experienced birders and carpool for a great birding experience. Meet at the Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center (WWC) across the street from Lowell High School at 11715 Vergennes Rd on December 28. The WWC is a great facility to visit and see many live mounts of birds displayed or hike a trail. WWC is where I was director during the last years before retiring from fulltime work. I hold Federal and State permits to display birds through the Michigan Audubon Society at Howard Christensen Nature Center and WWC. Plan on visiting either facility if you want to learn identification, size, and postures for birds before count day.

We meet at 7:30 a.m. at WWC, organize into groups and are out birding by 8 a.m. Some people join for the morning and others stay for the day. A hot lunch will be provided for $5 or bring a brown bag lunch. Consider making a donation to support the National Christmas Bird Count. Money donated is sent to the National Audubon and is used to maintain the database for all bird sightings on the continent. Scientists as well as birders can view the data online. It is used to monitor population changes from year to year. This is the 116th year for the Audubon Count.

Come dressed in layers that can be removed or added as temperature changes. We are in and out of cars at many locations. Bring binoculars and bird books if you have them. People will share if you do not. It is best to call me ahead of time (616-696-1753) if you plan to participate but just showing up is fine. I can answer questions you might have about count day activities.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

 

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Fish, Ice, and Lake Oxygen

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

 

It’s been a cold week. Snow arrived and icy roads have challenged drivers. One driver lost control at Ody Brook and slammed into a large spruce tree. It knocked the tree to a 60-degree angle. This Thanksgiving the driver can be thankful he was not injured. The tree probably will not survive. Meanwhile ice has formed on the ponds and protects the water world of nature niche life underneath.

Have you wondered why lakes don’t freeze from the bottom up? If they did, fish would be killed because lakes would freeze solid. Instead they freeze at the top and form an insolating layer that provides safe haven of aquatic wildlife for the winter.

Beavers construct a lodge they enter and exit from under the ice. Branches stored on the lake bottom are brought indoors for bark dinners. The top of beaver lodges rise above the ice allowing air exchange for breathing. A cozy lodge is insolated from extreme winter temperatures.

When fall arrives, air temperature cools and heats more rapidly than water. When cold air-cools surface water, the water sinks at 39-degrees F. At that temperature, water becomes its most compact and heaviest. It also holds the most oxygen possible at 39-degrees F. Because it is most dense, it sinks carrying oxygen to the depths of the lake.

During summer when sun warms water, a layer called a thermocline forms separating the upper and lower lake. The layer prevents easy movement between the lower (hypolimnion) and upper (epilimnion) lake water. Most plant life is above the thermocline, where sunlight reaches allowing photosynthesis to add oxygen to water during the day. At night, plants need oxygen and consume it for their needs. If algae and other plants are too abundant, they consume the oxygen and suffocate fish. This is known as summer kill.

Below the hypolimnion oxygen is slowly depleted because it is not replenished by photosynthesis or water mixing. Plants are few in the dark water, so they do not consume all the oxygen. Fish will often hang out at the thermocline, where they can cool down and slow metabolism so they require less oxygen and require less food.

In fall, the cold dense water holding oxygen sinks to the bottom of the lake oxygenating the entire lake. The movement stirs bottom sediments. I have seen Chrishaven Lake at the Christensen Nature Center look like someone stirred the lake with a giant stick in fall. The lake becomes filled with nutrient rich sediments. The activity destroys the thermocline and the lake becomes one even temperature body until the following summer when a new thermocline forms.

As water-cools below 39-degrees F, it begins to expand and does not sink. At 32-degrees F, the cold water freezes at the surface forming an insolating blanket. If windy, the blanket will not form smoothly. One can see if air was active or still by how smooth the ice layer is at the surface. Sun can penetrate ice allowing algae photosynthesis to continue. This plant growth will add oxygen to the water during the winter.

Sometimes when the snow layer on lakes is thin, light enters allowing algae to become abundant. When too abundant, the algae might consume all the oxygen during the long winter nights causing what anglers know as winter kill. At ice out in spring, dead fish float at the surface from winter suffocation. If the lake has streams flowing in, oxygen might be replenished. Fish will be found at these oxygen rich areas of the lake. A heavy snow blanket can prevent too much winter sun from entering the lake.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

 

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Wild Turkeys

 

 

The family was seated and enjoying a turkey dinner. Extended family brought additional side dishes and desserts. Traditional family gatherings are special events. My Cub Scout leader cut turkey shaped pieces of flat wood for our pack to paint and decorate for our mothers. That flat wood turkey given to my mother still survives even though she does not. The turkey decoration is now in my possession along with a coloring of a turkey with fantail made from the outline of my 3rd grade hand.

The holiday season annually began at Thanksgiving by going to my cousin’s for dinner and watching The Wizard of Oz on a TV that got a full three channels. We gave thanks for family members no longer with us that lived happy, sad, joyous, and humorous lives. Those lives continue in our memories. I hope the tradition continues in my absence. Maybe someone will tell the story of a 21-turkey parade at Ody Brook.

It was Thanksgiving Day two years ago. We were eating when a turkey walked through the yard. My brother said it must know it is safe because we already have turkey on the table. Then another appeared followed by more. Like the Count from Sesame Street, we each counted until 18 ventured from the woods, across the drive, behind the landscape mound, reappeared at the other end and disappeared into the tall weeds and shrub thicket. Three more brought up the rear to finish the parade.

Our conversation shifted to wild turkeys. I told of a neighbor farmer that complained turkeys were eating his newly planted crops in the spring. The investigating DNR biologist told him it was not turkeys but deer. The farmer did not believe him because he often saw turkeys in the field feeding. The DNR biologist said deer feed at night and returned to his truck get a rifle. He shot a turkey, cut it open, examined the crop and stomach and showed the farmer it was insects and not young crop plants.

We all make assumptions that are logical and rational but are not supported by scientific evidence. We tend to believe what parents, grandparents, great grandparents, uncles, aunts, and friends tell us. I was trained as a scientist to require supporting evidence before making a conclusion. Like all, I make assumptions that scientists call hypotheses. These are just a first step in science reasoning and we need to study nature niches to gather evidence to learn if our assumptions (hypotheses) are correct.

How much turkey information is myth, fairytale, fact, or correct? Facts as we know them are often incorrect and get corrected was we gather more evidence. Wild turkeys were a staple food of Native Americans and numbers were not excessive due to harvest. Native American populations plummeted with the advent of small pox and other diseases introduced by European settlers. Turkey populations exploded with fewer Indians and collapsed again when market hunting eliminated them from most nature niches.

None survived in Michigan but fortunately some survived in the deep swamps of the southeast US. Environmental conservationists introduced laws to manage hunting practices. Turkeys were reintroduced to Michigan and today a healthy turkey population fluctuates between 100,000 and 200,000. Enjoy watching or hunting turkeys that filled the void vacated when turkeys were extirpated without thought for our children’s generations.

With younger generations that are following mine, we ate Thanksgiving dinner watching wild turkeys. I have satisfaction having been a part of the DNR release of Wild Turkeys back into the Rogue River State Game Area surrounding the Howard Christensen Nature Center about 1988. They thrive in the forest with scattered farm fields. Turkeys feed on grain left after fall harvest, acorns and other forest food. Some natural predators kill adult turkeys but humans remain their primarily predator. Skunks, raccoons, and foxes prey heavily on eggs. The presence of coyotes helps keep these predators in check.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net or Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

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Cracking Ice

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

It is the time of year when people are thinking of getting on the ice. Polar bears hunt seals from the ice. We hunt fish or maybe just enjoy a walk on open ice of meandering streams or on lakes.

When I lived along the headwaters of the Mississippi River in the section that is classified as “Wild and Scenic,” the river froze thick in winter. We experienced below zero temperatures from about Christmas to mid February. Day temperatures were up to about zero and night temps were -20 F or -30 F except on cold nights when it dropped to -40 F.

I waited for solid ice before venturing out. Unfortunately, some are too anxious. A young father and vice-president of a local bank traveled by snow machine on a lake and never returned. It amazed me that when I would leave Minnesota for a Michigan Thanksgiving, Lake Bemidji was mostly open water. Four days later when I returned, people were driving pickup trucks on the ice to open water. Brave or foolhardy?

Where I lived, I hiked through knee to thigh deep snow to the wild section of the Mississippi. It was a peaceful joy to reach the river. The ice was bare and windswept. Walking was easy. Where shallow snow was present, I could follow fox tracks. The fox knew the easy travel routes. I lived along the first 35 miles of the river between Lake Itasca (the headwaters) and Bemidji. After Lake Bemidji, the river no longer qualified for the Wild and Scenic status. It does remain scenic and many areas still have wild character.

The woods were quiet in winter but red squirrels sometimes chattered at me, common ravens croaked over the forest. Black-capped chickadee, evening grosbeaks, purple finches, common redpolls among others kept me entertained at home feeders. The river was quieter except for occasional conversations it initiated.

The ice was friendly and talked to me. I wondered if it was sending mixed messages but it was not. I would hear loud cracks and snaps. I could peer down 2 to 3 feet into some cracks. The river said it was safe for walking. For that matter it would be safe driving but that section of the river was not accessible to motor vehicles. Not even snow machines accessed the area. That pleased my senses of sight, hearing, and smell. Wild places are best enjoyed when we allow nature to make the sounds, sights, smells, touch textures, and taste. Wild places for nature niches are wonderful for supporting wildlife and for our visits and experiences.

In the southern Michigan climate, ice is more treacherous than where it got cold. Respect nature’s whims for freezing and thawing. Learn to live with nature. The alternative is to die by natural events. Enjoy the coming long or short winter.

One last story. I wondered if the fox I was following was male or female. She eventually told me. She squatted to urinate between her tracks. A male would have lifted a leg to grasses along the riverbank. Read the landscape like a good book and behave appropriately for your safety and the health of wildlife that make it home.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

 

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Walk with Father Nature

A retired friend used his talents and skills as a teacher to stimulate appreciation and excitement for creation, in which we are part. We can be on-ookers or participants taking joy and responsibility for the Earth that supports us. I have always desired to be more than an onlooker. Personal time outdoors is essential for me. My experiences are enriched by mentors with greater skills and abilities.

Rich Havenga continues to share his talents through photography of nature’s wonders and writing that is inspired by experiences in the outdoors. He states, “I will share what I know and have learned through observation and reading. I will examine ways to look closer and deeper at nature. I hope to encourage my viewers to get outside, and explore with curiosity. To be grateful for these gifts from God.”

Looking deeper into nature is best accomplished by experiencing the natural world through personal immersion. It is a daily part of my life and a daily part of Rich’s life. It stirs our souls, stimulates our brains, strengthens our bodies, and heightens our emotions. Rich has been keeping a journal for 38 years since the birth of his son Aaron. He adds a new page daily.

If you like pictures, poetry, or prose, Rich’s blog has something to enrich your outdoor and internal experiences. http://walkwithfathernature.blogspot.com/

In his blog Rich wrote in a piece called Aaron, “Over the past 18 years, I’ve become very verbal when I see Fathers interacting with their children, in positive, caring, and fun ways. Especially when they are outdoors: in the park, at the playground, messing around in the creek, going fishing, watching insects up close, or spotting planets in the night sky. They may be working in the garden with their kids, raking leaves, building a snowman, taking a hike, exploring the woods, or simply balancing on an elevated log.”

See the entire piece at: http://walkwithfathernature.blogspot.com/search/label/Aaron

By scrolling down the right side of the blog you can select archive entries by month or scroll farther to select by subject under Labels. I am always encouraged and humbled by the work of others. How we experience the world of nature niches can be different for each of us. It helps us appreciate the world around us and stimulates a caring and responsibility for Earth stewardship. Enjoy your journey through the blog: Walk with Father Nature.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

 

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Young Birders Club

 

The interest of young bird enthusiast Sarah Toner helped initiate the 2013 establishment of the Michigan Young Birders Club. Wendy Tatar, program coordinator with the Michigan Audubon, had been working to bring life to the program in Michigan when Sarah’s interest in the program jelled with Audubon’s.

The program is led by young birders with a focus on inspiring and educating middle and high school ages 12–18 about birds and conservation. Adult sponsors help with program scheduling and division of tasks but youth direct activities toward their interests.

I just presented a lecture at a local university where a young freshman new to college talked with me about birds. He was well aware of e-bird and mich-listers and the ease of tracking bird sightings in real time so people can find unusual birds. Another young man from Sand Lake attended the lecture where he introduced himself and said he lives five miles from the Howard Christensen Nature Center. He explores the natural world there. This past weekend two friends contacted me for the purpose of taking a field trip to see species that are not commonly found in Michigan. We headed out to locate a Little Gull and a Red Phalarope.

We found the Red Phalarope but did not locate the Little Gull. Check your field guides or internet to learn about these two species. Of interest here is a young birder we found searching for the birds. He had seen internet postings and was searching on his own. I introduced myself and immediately he told me about a Sanderling searching for food among the rocks along the shoreline. I let him look through my spotting scope at a Great Black-backed Gull that was nestled among Ring-billed Gulls.

It would be nice to have a Young Birders Club in this area where youth of common interest could get together with peers. I suspect the Grand Rapids Audubon, Muskegon Nature Club, or other area Audubon clubs would be supportive and help youth with club activities. I was in tenth grade when I joined the Saginaw Audubon Club and began a life long journey of bird study for fun and fulfillment. Like the young man at the beach, I had not connected with others my age that shared a common interest.

Today connecting with others through the internet makes it easy to learn about birds and their locations. Adult supervision should assist to offer guidance and safety. Young people might gather with others of common interest as seen with flash mobs but it would be good to have club organization and adults from the community present for support and direction. Bird enthusiasts have their own flash mob gatherings at locations where interesting birds are reported. It is a new age for club gathering opportunities but interaction with knowledgeable mentors for youth is important. My life is better for the guidance offered by adults at youth organizations to support my development. Encourage youth to invest in their lives to make them rich in experience.

The Michigan Young Birders Club will help youth discover bird nature niches. Learn more at www.michiganaudubon.org/about/mybc.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

 

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Leaf Experiences

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

The best learning is a family experience with fun. I was raking leaves and thought about my girls helping or thinking they were helping. Then I thought about when I helped my dad rake leaves or thought I was helping. What I remember best from both experiences is that I jumped into the pile of leaves and buried myself and my girls jumped into the leaf pile and buried themselves.

A difference in our experiences was what happened to leaves—Earth Stewardship. In the 1950’s people up and down the block raked leaves into the road and burned them. My girls learned leaves make good compost and should not be burned. As mulch they decay and release nutrients into the soil or garden rather than into the air. We used leaves to spread on trails at Ody Brook to prevent dirt from getting in the soles of shoes.

A great experience helps kids observe the intricate natural world. They see details and gain basic knowledge, comprehend what they experience, apply experiences to life at home and in the community, analyze what is best, synthesize what they experienced to use for new unrelated purposes, and then evaluate the value.

The experience allows discovery. I did a leaf activity with students when I was classroom teacher and at the Howard Christensen Nature Center. In fall we found a sugar maple and each student collected ten leaves and then we found a silver maple and collected ten more leaves.

In the process the students learned to distinguish leaf similarities and differences for the two species. Learning more about adaptations for the species took us deeper into reasoning and mental development. Students compared the amount of substance in the two kinds of leaves to discover that silver maple leaves were lighter with less substance. They curled and shrivel more than the heavier sturdy sugar maple leaves. We weighed the leaves and found sugar maple leaves were heavier.

I shared that sugar maple leaves do not remove most of the nutrients from the leaves but allow nutrients to fall to ground in the leaf, where they rot under the tree to release nutrients for the tree’s use in spring. Silver maples ship a greater proportion of nutrients to the roots with the sap, and store it until spring for new growth. Both species have unique nature niche strategies for recycling nutrients. Silver maples are floodplain trees and their leaves wash away with spring flooding so nutrients would be lost if dropped with leaves. Sugar Maples are upland plants and their leaves stay near the tree and release nutrients to their own roots.

My dad, like most other dads, did not realize that releasing nutrients into the air by burning leaves contributes to air pollution and increased atmospheric carbon. I like fires and “some-mores” so we burn branches cleared during trail maintenance and make our “some-more” treats. We allow many to decay in the woods to replenish soil health. Most nutrients are in the small branches that decay rapidly so we leave those in the woods and burn some larger branches. We use large branches for brush pile construction for bird and mammal shelters.

Create family experiences and build relationships. Our kids are grown but I still desire help with projects at Ody Brook. I can use the help but more importantly I think it continues to build our relationship. Of course, their lives are full and busy but sometimes we still build relationships working together outdoors.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

 

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